Fictional Elements in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Sonnet Sequences and Early Modern Fictions

Article excerpt

Sonnet sequences are not a place where we would expect to find fictional devices, and yet fictional mechanisms such as truth-telling frames, arguments, and meta-fictional discourse occur in sonnet sequences printed in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Furthermore, the mechanisms found in the early printed sonnet sequences display elements of early modern printing practices also employed in the printing of fictional narratives. The sonnet sequence is one of the few genres that offer first-person fictions on the subject of love to the medieval and early modern reader. True, complaints, prose narratives with poems and other medieval and early modern first-person genres--consolations, confessions, public letters, and dream visions--also sometimes contain discussions on erotic subject matter. A notable example of two love narratives presented in distinct poems is the English Poems of Charles D'Orleans (c. 1450), but the cultural influence of this work in the early modern period is low: available in a single manuscript (British Library, MS Harley 682), the work was first printed in the nineteenth century. (1) Sonnet sequences, on the other hand, are mostly conceived of as philosophical and poetic explorations of erotic, usually unrequited, love from the perspective of a first-person speaker, and had a vast cultural influence.

Opinions are divided on whether sonnet sequences are narratives or not. By and large, critics working in the Anglophone tradition do not believe them to be so. Although the speaker of the sonnets is viewed as distinct from the historical person of the writer, this acknowledgement of fictionality does not equate to an acknowledgement that the sequences are either integral or narrative works, nor is having a fictional speaker taken to mean that the genre will function as a work of fiction. By way of example of the variety of opinions on the subject, Heather Dubrow argues that readers impose narrative on sonnets that resist it, yet, in the same argument she proposes an alternative narrative arrangement of the sonnets. (2) A critic who argued in favour of the idea of integrity, Shakespearean scholar John Kerrigan, advocated it not in relation to the sequence itself, but to the Quarto's 'tripartite Delian structure'. (3) Taking its name from Samuel Daniel's Delia (1592), this structure is exhibited in a number of English sonnet sequences including Shakespeare's, and consists of the sonnet sequence proper, Anacreontic verse (verse on lighter or mythological themes), and a complaint (a narrative poem, often written in the first person). Literary critics working in the Italian tradition or cultural historians such as David Buchbinder, Teodolinda Barolini, Marco Santagata, Roland Greene, or Jacques Barzun, on the other hand, acknowledge that sonnet sequences function as works of fiction. (4) Without focusing on the vast body of literature which argues that autobiographies (5) or calendrical or numerical structures (6) may be concealed in the sonnet sequences, I propose that our contemporary editorial focus on individual sonnets is anachronistic, and that the early modern writer and reader would have seen sonnet sequences as integral works belonging to a genre with strong links to narrative genres. I will describe fictional mechanisms and printing practices present in the early editions of English sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sonnet sequences and argue that they are related to earlier, contemporary, and later narrative genres, such as romances and early novels, and therefore have a place in the history of fictional genres. (7)

The nature of fictionality, the relationship between autobiography and fiction, fiction and narrative, and the origins of the novel are vast topics, exceeding the scope of this article; from Fielding and Bakhtin, to Terry Eagleton and Franco Moretti, (8) opinions are many and wide-ranging. The two points I wish to make here, to add to these debates, are quite specific: first, that elements of what we now call the novel have developed in unexpected places, and that fictional and narrative functions can be located in the sonnet sequence, a genre of disputed narrativity, suggests the genre belongs within a broader examination of how novelistic techniques have developed over time; and second, that the correspondences between fictional mechanisms and printing practices used in narratives and sonnet sequences would suggest that authors of sonnet sequences may have been writing first-person fictions, and that printers and readers may have perceived sonnet sequences and narrative genres as related. …